Backwaters: The Olympic Peninsula
At the northwesternmost appendage of the contiguous United States, the Olympic Peninsula is literally the crown of the Pacific West Coast. It's America's final frontier, and it's a paddler's wet dream (really—the Olympic Peninsula is home to the Hoh—the wettest temperate rainforest in America, which should tell you something about the paddling opportunities there). Pockets of azure fresh water collect in deep basins beneath the white-capped Olympic Mountains, and on calm days, the lakes' steely complexions reflect more detail than any mirror on the wall. Lush rivers of snowmelt crisscross between groves and fern gullies, draining toward the abundant seas that fringe the forest. Bald eagles are more common than street pigeons. Native American's maintain the dominant bloodline and Orca whales appear to assume the runner-up majority. No cities dwell on the final frontier. Old growth Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlocks and Big Leaf Maples are the region's only skyscrapers. Car alarms and police sirens don't sound here. Visitors hear only silence, occasionally broken by the croaks of tree frogs, the hoots of spotted owls and yes, oh yes, the rumble of some of the best surf in the Pacific Northwest.
What are my paddling options?
The Olympic Peninsula makes up the northwestern corner of Washington state, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the US and Canada, to the north. The territory offers paddling options for the gamut of tastes, with freshwater sanctuaries like Lake Crescent (over 1,000 feet deep), flourishing rivers, coastal rock outcroppings and sea caves, downwind runs in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and surf breaks like La Push and Hobuck Beach. Take your pick. And bring every board in your quiver.
How do I get there?
Getting to the Olympic Peninsula from Seattle involves one of the most spectacularly scenic three- to five-hour car journeys the PNW offers, depending on the route and specific destination you choose. There are two main passageways out of the metropolis: You can take Highway 5 south from Seattle and wrap west to Aberdeen, then drive north up the coast on Hwy 101. Our preferred route involves hopping a ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, then catching the other end of Hwy 101 and driving northwest to Port Angeles. From PA, you can hang a right on Hwy 112 and drive along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Note: With a proper incoming tide and the right swell conditions, the Strait’s point breaks can light up. Keep your eyes peeled for surf as you head west.
What do I need to bring?
Time, for starters. To best experience the Olympic Peninsula, a weeklong camping expedition is the way to go, although a weekend will suffice for the eager 9-to-5-er. Your typical car-camping setup (waterproofed) and cold-weather gear will work in any season. In the western portion of Olympic National Park it rains about 150 inches a year, which makes it one of the wettest places in the contiguous United States; Don’t forget your rain jacket, waterproof shoes and tarps. Dry wood and a fire-starting kit provide a simple luxury you won't want to do without. And of course, don't forget your 5mm hooded wetsuit, gloves, booties and board setups.
Where's the nearest Marriot?
Keep dreaming, partner. National forest and park makes up the majority of the Olympic Peninsula, and most communities in the area are on Native American reservations. Remote camping is an option with proper permitting, but pay-and-play campsites are most hospitable and plentiful throughout the region. We recommend setting up shop on the beach at La Push or Hobuck, where you can camp overnight for $30. Supplies can be purchased at local markets in any of the area’s major towns.
The vampire blockbuster series “Twilight” was filmed on the Olympic Peninsula and gave Forks—one of the largest towns on the Peninsula (population 3,688)—its moment in the Hollywood limelight. Traces of the film are still present passing through Forks. You can stop through and pick up any Twilight souvenir your heart desires.–Mike Misselwitz
For guided trips, check out Salmon Bay Paddle.
Backwaters is a new series by SUP magazine that highlights less-known and less-populated paddling destinations.